The share of people living in poverty in the United States fell to a record low last year as an enormous government relief effort helped offset the worst economic contraction since the Great Depression.
In the latest and most conclusive evidence that poverty fell because of the aid, the Census Bureau reported on Tuesday that 9.1 percent of Americans were living below the poverty line last year, down from 11.8 percent in 2019. That figure — the lowest since records began in 1967, according to calculations from researchers at Columbia University — is based on a measure that accounts for the impact of government programs. The official measure of poverty, which leaves out some major aid programs, rose to 11.4 percent of the population.
The new data will almost surely feed into a debate in Washington about efforts by President Biden and congressional leaders to enact a more lasting expansion of the safety net that would extend well beyond the pandemic. Democrats’ $3.5 trillion plan, which is still taking shape, could include paid family and medical leave, government-supported child care and a permanent expansion of the Child Tax Credit.
Liberals cited the success of relief programs, which were also highlighted in an Agriculture Department report last week that showed that hunger did not rise in 2020, to argue that such policies ought to be expanded. But conservatives argue that higher federal spending is not needed and would increase the federal debt while discouraging people from working.
The fact that poverty did not rise more during an enormous economic disruption reflects the equally enormous response. Congress expanded unemployment benefits and food aid, doled out hundreds of billions of dollars to small businesses and sent direct checks to most Americans. The Census Bureau estimated that the direct checks alone lifted 11.7 million people out of poverty last year; unemployment benefits and nutrition assistance prevented an additional 10.3 million people from falling into poverty, according to an analysis of the data by The New York Times.
“It all points toward the historic income support that was delivered in response to the pandemic and how successful it was at blunting what could have been a historic rise in poverty,” said Christopher Wimer, a co-director of the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at the Columbia University School of Social Work. “I imagine the momentum from 2020 will continue into 2021.”
Poverty rose much more after the previous recession, peaking at 16.1 percent in 2011, by the measure that takes fuller account of government assistance, and improving only slowly after that. Many economists have argued that the federal government did not do enough back then and pulled back aid too quickly.
Despite the more aggressive response this time, however, median household income last year fell 2.9 percent, adjusted for inflation, to about $68,000. That figure includes unemployment benefits but not stimulus checks or noncash…